It was a hot August night in New Orleans, on a night long ago, in the summer of 2019, when traveling somewhere wasn’t nearly as stressful a situation as it is today. Tucked inside a soundstage down a nondescript road, I’d managed to take a journey into the future — specifically to San Dimas, CA in the year 2720 — thanks to a visit to the set of Bill & Ted Face the Music.
In the film, Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves), a few decades older than when we last saw them, have returned to the future. And both on set and for the characters, there was much to admire visually, including a large display of guitars from the past, present, and future. And then there was the impressive, albeit imposing, group of clearly important figures sitting high above, who had summoned Bill & Ted via Kelly (Kristen Schaal), the daughter of their friend, Rufus – the role played by the late, great George Carlin in the first two Bill & Ted films, with Carlin’s real life daughter, Kelly, used as inspiration for his onscreen daughter’s name.
Unfortunately though, unlike their experience with the Three Supreme Beings during the original Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, things aren’t going so well this time for Bill & Ted, as the Great Leader (Holland Taylor) somewhat angrily warns them that they have precisely 77 minutes and 25 seconds to at long last fulfill their destiny and write and perform the song destined to unite all of humanity… or reality as we know it will be destroyed.
When I recently spoke to Reeves and Winter about filming that scene, Reeves noted, “Bill & Ted always put their best foot forward, and of course, it’s where they receive the message of the new quest, their new responsibility, which is a very huge responsibility.” He noted they start out with an old standby to the Great Leader — “Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes!” — but when that doesn’t work so well, “They tie up their bootstraps and tackle their problems.”
Winter had high praise for Taylor, saying, “Holland is so fantastic and we were so lucky to have her,” adding, “It was a fun scene for us because Bill & Ted by nature are so optimistic and hopeful. Even though Ted, as usual, is a little ahead of the game and realizing things really are not going so well…”
Recalled Winter, “In fact, I think that was one of the scenes the guys first pitched us. ‘What if we’re brought back to the future, only they don’t love us there anymore?’ That’s cool! We knew when we first heard that that it would be a fun scene to play.”
THE SERIES THAT WOULDN’T QUIT
“The guys” Winter was referring to were Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, the creators of Bill & Ted and, in a rarity for Hollywood, the writers of all three films in the series. Of course, Bill & Ted is also unusual because it’s now a trilogy where the first two chapters opened just a couple of years apart – in 1989 and 1991 – but where the third film has taken nearly 30 years to debut.
On set, Solomon noted that he, Matheson, Winter, and Reeves had initially all moved on from the series after the first sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, but then, “The weirdest thing happened, which was that it just kept lingering, culturally. People would constantly be asking Keanu [about a third film]. And then finally, in one interview, I remember he just said something like, ‘I wouldn’t rule it out,’ or something like that, and somebody sent it to us. Alex and I had become good friends since Bill & Ted. And we were always talking but we never really talked about doing another Bill & Ted. And we called Alex and we were like, ‘Do you think we should even think about it? Do we think it’s worth it?”
Said Winter, “We had a lot of fans that would come up to us over the years. All the time, every day, people were popping up. As the years went on and you started to get more kids coming up to you, little kids, clearly parents were showing it to their kids. I think for both [Keanu and I] it really started to sink in, as far as it being something that stuck around. The fans are really what blew wind into the sails of this third one and made it happen. It really wouldn’t have happened without them. That sounds like such a party line cliché, but the Bill & Ted don’t have giant studios behind us and it really wouldn’t have happened if the fans had not demanded it.”
Regarding the long term impact of Bill & Ted, Reeves remarked, “It’s really unique and extraordinary. I don’t have any other experience in my life that’s a project we started 30 years ago and here we are. As an artist, you hope that people like what you’re doing and appreciate it. It’s been cool to see other people see the film when they were kids who [now] have kids and show their kids the movie.”
Solomon said it was around late 2008 or early 2009 that the four key Bill & Ted collaborators met for a BBQ and that Reeves helped get the ball rolling on a potential story, suggesting, Solomon recalled, “Something like the stress; the pressure of having been told you’re going to be the greatest people who ever lived or that your music’s going to save the world. What that must actually feel like and really living with that pressure.”
Matheson and Solomon eventually decided to write a script on spec, without any official clearance or any payment, for a third Bill & Ted, having no ownership in the series and needing to convince the rights holders to make the film, which would turn into an ongoing, years-long struggle. As it turns out, the studio — MGM now owns both the Bill & Ted rights and the original distributor for the series, Orion Pictures — was thinking about doing a full reboot with new, young actors playing Bill & Ted, rather than a sequel with Reeves and Winter returning as middle-aged versions of the characters, which they weren’t convinced was commercially viable. Solomon said their fight to get Bill & Ted 3 made was eventually given a boost by Reeves’ return to the spotlight with the success of the John Wick franchise and, after a full decade of work to make it happen, Bill & Ted Face the Music finally went into production.
After all their hard work to get the film off the ground, Solomon observed, as we walked around the lot where production was underway, “It’s actually quite it’s a lot funnier to see them now older [than we first intended], with their kids now old enough to be young adults.” He also appreciated that in a highly cynical time, with people so divided, it felt good to have a comedy about “these guys who are not divided, these guys who are not cynical, with a message that is not mean.”
Solomon and Matheson felt it was important to see what Bill & Ted were like as middle-aged men, rather than have them be exactly the same as they were as teenagers, and yet, Solomon stressed, “They’re still Bill and Ted. They’ve never fought and they have each other’s back. They have a sort of buoyancy and a lot of optimism. But life hasn’t quite worked out for them, and that’s real for them. And so that’s the main gist of the story.”
Also of note in Face the Music are those aforementioned kids turned young adults, Billie (Atypical’s Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Thea (Ready or Not’s Samara Weaving), the daughters of Ted and Bill, respectively. As Solomon described, “Their daughters are on a parallel journey because they witnessed their dads disappear [in a time machine] with Kelly. They know about their dads’ pasts and so they decide to try to help their dads put a band together.”
NEVER GIVE UP
Even without the film yet greenlit, a director was secured for Bill & Ted Face the Music many years ago, with Dean Parisot, best known for the beloved sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest, joining the project.
Recalled Parisot, of Bill & Ted 3’s long road to the screen, “I remember being in a meeting, drinking a lot of coffee — it was Keanu, Alex, and I — and I said, ‘Wow, you guys have been on this for so long,’ and Keanu looks at me and says, ‘Dude, you’ve been on it for six years!’ It’s like wait, right, we’ve all been doing this forever! It seemed like this thing we keep showing up for. And then finally it happened, it was kind of a miracle.”
Said Solomon, “Dean is such the perfect director for this. I met Dean 25 years ago and I wanted to work with him since… He’s got incredibly good taste and he’s really funny but I don’t think of him as a ‘comedy director.’ And even though this is a comedy, I think of it more as an absurd film.’”
Parisot said for his part, he saw it as “A sci-fi adventure film with ludicrous characters in a tragic situation. So, I’m attracted to that, I think, for some strange reason. Both Ed and Chris wanted, also, to be precise in all the discussions of time and space. Ed has a friend who’s a physicist. And, so, everything in it was fact-checked. But it’s still ridiculous, obviously!”
Said Weaving, of Parisot, “He’s really collaborative and calm. There were so many big set pieces in this film and it could have gone sideways very easily but he managed to keep everyone really calm and chill and cool and still have fun and play. He’s such a wonderful leader. One of a kind.”
Lundy-Paine described Parisot as “100%” the right director for Bill & Ted. “He has this really magical way of getting the funniest thing you could do and the most truthful thing you can do in the same take. He’s so dedicated to character and this really fun reality in the most ridiculous circumstances. Absolutely brilliant. It was such a gift to work with Dean.”
Another notable returning character in Bill & Ted Face the Music is the Grim Reaper, with William Sadler reprising his hysterical character from Bogus Journey. Said Sadler, “The minute I put the robes back on, and the makeup and the accent, he was just there. Working with Alex and Keanu again, I was surprised. We’re all older now but it genuinely felt like we’d been just doing this yesterday, you know? The spirit was all there. The energy and the ‘Whoa! Dude!’ All of that chemistry, it was all there, like it had never left.”
Regarding Parisot, Sadler said, “It’s always a little dance when you get to know a new director. There were things that I needed from a director and I always try to make that clear to them. But Dean was such a fan. Once I was in character and cooking, we just had fun together. It was like ‘Do it again, whatever you want. We got what we need, now do one just for giggles.’ And he was really lovely. He was the best kind of director, super supportive. It’s hard work. Under the pressure of a sequel, you need someone at the helm who can do that, who can keep everybody’s spirits in the right place.”
Besides both films blending blend comedy and science fiction, Galaxy Quest and Bill & Ted Face the Music are also both about characters who are perceived as being very important but who haven’t actually lived up to that yet. Asked what it was about that theme that appealed to him, Parisot replied, “Because it’s like us. There are moments where you think very highly of yourself but mostly you’re going, ‘I’m a complete loser and I’m never going to pull this off,’ right? I think most people are like that and those are universal characters. I’m attracted to characters that are flawed and a big mess. Like I think I am and I think most of my friends are, and most everybody I meet. And we have moments of luck and even brilliance sometimes in spite of that. And I think what I love is celebrating that idea that you never give up. You keep trying. And that you need help. It’s not just you, right, it’s all of us together. And that’s what attracts me to Bill & Ted and attracted me to Galaxy Quest.”
Solomon felt that Parisot was able to play the material truthfully, while also keeping the attitude, “’I want it to be absurd and I want it to be funny as hell.’ But not at the expense of truth. He’s just really sophisticated. We don’t have much money, which means we have to shoot fast, and he has a lot of TV experience, which helps out, but he also has a lot of film experience, so he knows both worlds really well.”
THE WORLD NEEDS BILL & TED
Bill & Ted Face the Music was originally scheduled to open August 21, and while it jumped around a week or two on the schedule for a bit, its final August 28 release date is hardly a massive change in and of itself, considering how many other films have been delayed by months, if not a full year, thanks to COVID-19. However, it’s not opening in the manner anyone could have expected, now going for a simultaneous release on VOD and in selected theaters, rather than a wide theatrical release, thanks to the global pandemic that has had such a massive impact on the film industry, along with nearly every aspect of our lives these days.
As much as this wasn’t the plan and as much as it’s a shame the film can’t be seen inside a packed theater of fans, it’s still been noted by many that the good-natured vibe of Bill & Ted feels like exactly the film we could use in 2020, in the midst of so much hardship.
Said Parisot, “That’s one of the reasons I made the movie. I felt that what’s turning out to be a somewhat divisive time, I wanted to make a movie about coming together. Hopefully somebody gets an hour and a half respite from whatever horror they’re going through.”
Weaving said she felt “A little escapism and a couple hours of pure joy and silliness are just right,” with Lundy-Paine remarking, “I think it’s almost apropos that we can’t just see it in the theaters because the world is ending. You know, there’s nothing more relevant. But absolutely, this is a movie about friendship and sharing community. And those are the pillars of what we need to hear right now and what we need to remind ourselves of.”
Asked if he felt this was the right time for Bill & Ted, Sadler replied, “I think so, I really do. What a year, man. This has just been the hardest five or six months I’ve ever lived through, I think. We are so ready for some ‘Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes!’ I think it couldn’t come at a better time.”
A year after our conversation on the film’s set, when asked about the circumstances Bill & Ted Face the Music is now opening in, Solomon said, “Obviously, nobody would want the situation the world is in, especially the United States is in, right now. I certainly don’t want it. And we certainly did not anticipate this when we made a movie about two utterly uncynical dudes trying to figure out how to unite the world. We never anticipated that it would be set against this backdrop.”
Solomon added, “Look, the movie is as uncynical as a movie can be. It was made for uncynical reasons and it stars a cast of characters who are at their core very uncynical. And so I hope that the least this movie does for people is provide 90 minutes of silly, absurd diversion from what feels to me like one of the toughest periods of time we’ve been going through in a while.”
For his part, Reeves said, “I think we always need Bill and Ted, and maybe now more than ever,” while Winter added, “The film wasn’t made as a message movie but the inherent themes of Bill & Ted and their characters are really genuinely about friendship and fellowship and being kind to people and being kind to yourself and each other. All of those things, especially right now, are good to hear. The film is very much about the whole world coming together and the need for that and I think that is also not the worst thing in the world to be talking about at the moment.”
Bill & Ted Face the Music debuts Friday, August 28 in theaters and on VOD. It hits screens in the UK on September 16.